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Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and Autism

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Updated April 13, 2009


What Is ABA?

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA)is a system of autism treatment based on behaviorist theories which, simply put, state that behaviors can be taught through a system of rewards and consequences. The Lovaas Institute explains the concept in this way:

  • Applied - principles applied to socially significant behavior
  • Behavioral - based on scientific principles of behavior
  • Analysis - progress is measured and interventions modified

ABA and Autism

When it comes to autism, ABA has become synonymous with the methods and research of Dr. Ivar Lovaas. (This is why ABA is sometimes actually called "Lovaas" within the autism community!) Lovaas, a psychologist, first applied ABA to autism at the Psychology Department at UCLA in 1987. His idea was that social and behavioral skills could be taught, even to profoundly autistic children, through the ABA method. Indeed, his idea turned out to be quite correct: Many if not most children who receive ABA training learn to behave appropriately at least some of the time -- and some even lose their autism diagnosis after years of intensive therapy.

Can ABA Cure Autism?

How ABA Works

The Lovaas Method of ABA starts with "discrete trials" therapy (sometimes referred to just as "dicrete"). A discrete trial consists of a therapist asking a child for a particular behavior (for example, "Johnny, please pick up the spoon"). If the child complies, he is given a "reinforcer" or reward in the form of a tiny food treat, a high five, or any other reward that means something to the child. If the child does not comply, he does not receive the reward, and the trial is repeated.

What is Discrete Trials?

It's important to note that the specific content of the discrete trials therapy is based on an evaluation of the individual child, his needs, and his abilities. So a child who is already capable of sorting shapes would not be asked to sort shapes indefinitely for rewards -- but would focus on different, more challenging social and/or behavioral tasks.

The very youngest children (under age three) receive a modified form of ABA which is much closer to play therapy than to discrete trials. As they master behaviors, well-trained therapists will start to take learners out the classroom or home setting and into more natural settings, where they can practice and adapt their new skills to the real world.

Pros and Cons of ABA

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